Parents should know that an early introduction of antidepressants to children could lead to a lifetime of use, according to research by a psychology team from The University of Texas at El Paso that was published recently in Scientific Reports, a prestigious journal that is part of the Nature Publishing Group.
Sergio Iñiguez, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and director of UTEP’s Iñiguez Behavioral Neuroscience Lab, said that children who are prescribed medication such as Prozac for anxiety and depression may need to continue to use those products as adults to lead normal lives.
Iñiguez said that the three-year study produced evidence that Prozac treatment has long-lasting effects on developing brains, particularly the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls personal expression, decision making, planning complex behavior, and moderating social behavior.
“There is no cure yet for anxiety and depression,” Iñiguez said. “We manage these disorders with medication, so it is important to examine if Prozac exposure during adolescence is safe to use in the long run, specifically to evaluate the potential harm/benefit ratio.”
Iñiguez led the team of researchers that was made up of one postdoctoral fellow, five doctoral students and two undergraduates.
One of the doctoral students was Francisco Flores, who earned his doctorate from UTEP in 2020 and was hired by Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, as a postdoctoral researcher. This antidepressant experimental work was his dissertation project.
Flores praised Iñiguez and his lab mates for their assistance with this important study because it produced information that will allow parents to make more knowledgeable decisions about whether or not to pursue antidepressant treatment for their children.
“This is particularly relevant data, given that some reports are showing that the incidence of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents is increasing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and many of those young individuals, especially girls, will be offered treatment with Prozac,” Flores said.
The antidepressant Fluoxetine, also known as Prozac, is FDA-approved to treat depression in children as young as 8.
While effective in children, science does not fully understand how exposure to this medication could influence their development and their vulnerability to stress-related anxiety and disorders as well as mental illness in adulthood, said A.J. Robison, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology at Michigan State University.
Robison, a fellow researcher who has known Iñiguez for 13 years, called his colleague a “field leader” who is driving the exploration of the brain and improvements in mental health. He said this recent study is another critical step to understand brain function, mental illness and psychiatry.
“The body of work Sergio and his talented lab have produced on this subject enables them, other scientists and physicians to better understand the benefits and risks of early life exposure to this and other antidepressants, and may help to uncover alternative or additional treatments for depression in children and/or for adults who were exposed to antidepressants during childhood,” Robison said.